In March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, the court that sets federal law for Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, ruled in an opinion in a case called Rehberg v. Paulk that people lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the content of email messages stored with an email provider. This meant that the police in those three states were free to ignore the Fourth Amendment when obtaining email messages from a provider. In this case, the plaintiff alleged that the District Attorney had used a sham subpoena to trick a provider to hand over the plaintiff’s email messages. The Court ruled that the DA was allowed to do this, consistent with the Constitution.
I am happy to report that today, the Court vacated the opinion and replaced it with a much more carefully reasoned, nuanced opinion.
Most importantly, the Eleventh Circuit no longer holds that “A person also loses a reasonable expectation of privacy in emails, at least after the email is sent to and received by a third party.” nor that “Rehberg’s voluntary delivery of emails to third parties constituted a voluntary relinquishment of the right to privacy in that information.” These bad statements of law have effectively been erased from the court reporters.
This is a great victory for Internet privacy, although it could have been even better. The Court no longer strips email messages of protection, but it didn’t go further and affirmatively hold that email users possess a Fourth Amendment right to privacy in email. Instead, the Court ruled that even if such a right exists, it wasn’t “clearly established,” at the time the District Attorney acted, which means the plaintiff can’t continue to pursue this claim.
I am personally invested in this case because I authored a brief asking the Court to reverse its earlier bad ruling. I am glad the Court agreed with us and thank all of the other law professors who signed the brief: Susan Brenner, Susan Freiwald, Stephen Henderson, Jennifer Lynch, Deirdre Mulligan, Joel Reidenberg, Jason Schultz, Chris Slobogin, and Dan Solove. Thanks also to my incredibly hard-working and talented research assistants, Nicole Freiss and Devin Looijien.
Updated: The EFF (which represents the plaintiff) is much more disappointed in the amended opinion than I. They make a lot of good points, but I prefer to see the glass half-full.